Book Review: Kazuo Ishiguro, When we were Orphans

Ishinguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of Britain’s leading writers, without doubt outstanding. Yet his books are often as frustrating as they’re readable and intriguing. They often seem to inhabit a detailed dream world, but the narrators drift in and out of what seems like dream. What starts apparently naturalistic often becomes very odd.

 

His type of background (born in Japan to Japanese parents who moved to England when he was six; living in England ever since) would not be exceptional in America or Australia, but in the U.K. it’s much more unusual. I suppose there’s a kind of dislocation in most of his books that may be related to his experience growing up.

 

He’s best known for “The Remains of the Day”, which became a very successful film with Anthony Hopkins as the decent, repressed, duty-obsessed butler.

 

“When we were Orphans” features a successful detective, Christopher Banks, looking back at his life. There are flashbacks, but if I straighten those out, events go like this. Young Christopher grows up in 1920s Shanghai. His father works for a British trading company and his mother is passionately involved in the campaign against the opium trade, in which the company was implicated. He has only one friend, a Japanese boy called Akiro.

 

His father disappears. Police investigate with no success. Months later, his mother too disappears. He’s moved to England and the care of an aunt. He begins to build a career and meets a young society woman who seems to chase after famous and successful men. She ignores him, then shows interest in him, but he keeps his distance. It’s clear at this stage that his mind is dominated by his parents’ disappearance and he intends to find out what happened. He also seems more than normally concerned about his friend Akiro and seeks news of him.

 

He adopts an orphan girl, Jennifer, and there is affection between them.

 

Around 1937 he is able to go to Shanghai and investigate his parents’ disappearance. This is where things start becoming very strange. For example, a British official immediately attaches himself to him and keeps on asking questions about how the reception for his rescued parents should be organised. Yet they disappeared fifteen years ago, there’s been no word and surely any such official would think they might well be dead. He meets the woman who’d shown interest in him, now unhappily married and they agree to depart together: he seems to have forgotten his parents!

 

His investigation has made some progress, identifying a Chinese warlord his mother had offended, but on identifying a house that might have been part of the story, he becomes obsessed by the thought that his parents are still being held there! Trouble is, the Japanese have invaded, and although they’ve not touched the International Settlement, the house is in a part of the city being fought over by the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Nonetheless, he sets out to reach it, at the last minute abandoning the woman he’d promised to go with.

 

His behaviour becomes stranger and stranger. A Chinese officer puts himself in danger and diverts men from the battle to help him, yet when this officer says he can’t take him further, he berates and threatens him. He carries on and, by the sort of extreme coincidence found in dreams, stumbles on Akiro, wounded and about to be killed by the Chinese. He saves him, but the search comes to nothing and he ends up injured and in the hands of the Japanese, who treat him well. But when he hears that Akiro is thought to be a deserter, he does nothing to try to save him and despite things the man said, begins to doubt if it was Akiro at all.

 

The story goes on into Christopher Banks’ old age, but I should not tell more. He does find out what happened to his parents and at the end the story returns to naturalism and credible events. The degree of acceptance and resolution common in Ishiguro is found through Christopher’s continuing support for and support from Jennifer. He seems to have made no effort to find out what happened to Akiro. I puzzled over the title, since Akiro was not an orphan, before realising that the “we” must refer to Christopher and Jennifer.

 

The picture of the contradictions and conflicts of foreign society in Shanghai is very well done, as is the picture of childhood and a friendship between two rather isolated boys. But I do find that when the course of events becomes bizarre, I stop caring about the characters. Well, it’s what Ishiguro mostly does.

History seeps into poetry

Last time I blogged about writing poetry about historical events. I admitted to having a History degree and a continuing fascination with the subject. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows that Marston Moor was a battle in the English Civil War, that a poem titled “Marston Moor” is historical. I wrote another poem called “Marie Antoinette”, and that’s a bit of a giveaway too.

But there are more subtle influences, ways in which historical awareness affects what I write just as awareness of landscape does even if the poem is not about landscape.

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Trapped in the hills and hunted down

By hidden bog and avalanche

By haunting wind and wolf, survivors

Stumble beside a clattering stream

Down to the valley of their dream

 

Where cupping hands bring out bright gold

Trees offer fruit of no known tang

And vivid song as no bird sang

Wakens the travellers from the cold

 

They name the valley, import the skills

To mine the gold and lay the roads

Till someone heads for other hills.

 

When no dark ridge is left, the wise

Explore the forests of the mind

And stare in one another’s eyes

 

Now out of mist on broken lands

What new and treacherous hills will rise?

That’s from the poem “Explorers”. The explorers go through great dangers to find they know not what. They find wonderful things, destroy them over time and move on. I can’t see that I could have written that without awareness of European exploration of other continents – and of the influence of the American West and the impact of the West (in the sense of a borderland of promise and danger for the settlers) ending.

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STONE STEPS

 

They found some stone around this place:

The pale steps worn by constant feet

Are buried in the wiry grass

And no-one knows who walked on them.

 

One end is by the river bank;

No sign of other end is left.

Perhaps this curious find is best

Donated to the town museum,

 

But somehow it seems better still

To leave them where they worked and wore.

Maybe they’re still a bridge of sorts,

Though what to what no-one can guess.

Well, this is a mysterious poem and no doubt not really about what it appears to be about, but the starting point is the historian’s or archaeologist’s curiosity about some remnant or ruin.

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CITY

 

Something started here

For a reason: the river was fordable

The tracks of cattle drovers drew together

The lie of the land and the weather were right for spinning

A governor found the distance from his palace

Just right for horses. Growth has a beginning.

 

Those origins are hidden, bulldozed, built on

Reinterpreted in guide-book and in myth

Slums and fine houses grow and are destroyed

The stonework of the bridge lies underwater

The factory’s become a heritage centre

From crumpled streets the tanners and the whores

Have gone but left their memories for a while

In street-names till some government

Dedicated to the pure and nice renamed them after

Generals, or trees that once were said to grow there.

Old stinking alleys strangled for office blocks

Ghostly survive in sections of quiet close

Or shopping trolley dumps round parking lots.

 

The city forgets; flexes; reinterprets.

People are born and die, the language changes

Suburbs seep out. Some time the city will end

Inventiveness, sweat, tears, frescos swallowed up

Slipping into decline, houses left empty,

Grass in the streets, but here and there a core

Churning more slowly and uncertainly;

Or suddenly in a fire that by scorched shadows

Commemorates the impertinence of daily life.

Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen

In humps and ditches against the flow of land

By rumour, legend and a blackened buckle.

That’s from “Six Strands”, my longest poem: I used another bit of the same poem to illustrate how being a long-distance walker had influenced my poetry. The strand here on the city is pretty much all history: an awareness of processes by which cities grow up, change and die, but leave remains that can be interpreted even if all memory of the city has been lost. The picture of decline, for example, owes something to what I know of the last years of the Roman empire in Britain.

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Dust in marble halls, dust of marble halls

Ground jewels, rose roots strike

Lustre withers, slow-burning amethyst escapes

A lost note cries in the dark and I cannot find it

 

Out of the deathborn mud, worms rise

That’s from “Estuary Shore” and the point here is the intense sense of time, time over such a long period that marble halls are turned to dust, but a sense of renewal and rebirth as well.

I might add some comments next time about History and why I think Ford was wrong (“History is bunk”) about this as well as most other things except how to make money from making cars. But that’ll do for now. Oh, and if that dratted (or mysterious, intriguing) formatting has appeared again – sorry. The controls that should remove it do not work. It appeared one day and will not leave.

Now that is an idea – a poem pretending to be a load of formatting instructions.

 

Book Review: The Constant Gardener by John le Carre

Now this is one a lot of people will have heard of. John le Carre is a huge name in spy fiction and his fame has been spread by successful films of “The Spy who Came in from the Cold” and especially “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. He had been less in the limelight for a while and I suspect many observers thought he was going into gradual literary decline. Then “The Constant Gardener” hit the world like a bomb blast.

The picture painted of the world is profoundly depressing. A young female lawyer married to a British diplomat discovers secrets about a drug being aggressively promoted on the African market by a British-owned company close to a particularly corrupt African government (which incidentally has since fallen). She and an aid worker friend are brutally murdered. The British diplomats want to avoid awkward fuss but two British police officers sent to look into the matter become suspicious of a high-level cover-up involving the drug company and the two governments. They are abruptly called home.

The diplomat husband, inheriting a lot of money from his wife, suspects the truth, goes underground and investigates, taking on a war in which he is hopelessly outgunned. It’s difficult to review the book without giving away the ending, but the honest and brave are killed or disgraced, the cynical and venal are uplifted, the drug continues to kill and there is just a hint of another ending (1984 style, where the narrator/commentator is clearly speaking from a future time when the totalitarian regime has ended) in mention of continuing campaigns and awkward questions asked in Parliament.

In another sense it’s hopeful. The wife and the husband are good people as are many others who help them. Evil can kill but not entirely crush good or truth. There is social decay but individual redemption (with just a hint of Graham Greene’s leftish Catholicism). Many books written with anger work as politics but not as novels. This works as both.

The diplomatic context, the politics, media and business manoevring are very credibly depicted. I soon cared a lot about the characters, particularly unlucky but noble Justin, the husband. The writing is sharp, compelling and sensitive: le Carre has an excellent ear for nuance, half-truth and dissonance between individuals.

I am just optimistic enough to think the plot lets the cover-up happen a little too easily. There are newspapers which would suspect the worse and have the resources and independence to pursue the truth. It’s hard to believe the last death described wouldn’t set a lot of alarm bells ringing.

It’s a brilliant, painful book nonetheless.

Strange poems here. Perhaps the poet really meant…

On with a few more reblogged poems now with added explanation. Hmm… could try a “three poems for the price of two” offer or an extra-long poem for the same price as a short one. No?

 

BRITISH NATIONALITY

 

Nobody gave me a choice

Of where I’d like to be born

Nobody set me a test

Nor asked me to swear allegiance

To a fixed smile in a dress

 

I feel as Irish as Scottish

I’m English and Welsh in the blood

How could they accept me as British

Who’d trade in the crown for the mud?

 

When people become British citizens now, they take part in a ceremony. This seems to be well-received and a happy occasion. Before this, they have to take a test to show they know enough about the country – a test which most British-born people fail, with strange questions and with no internal balancing mechanism so that though the questions are randomly selected from a l;arge pool, it’s perfectly possible for them to be biased towards one subject.

 

They then have to swear allegiance to the queen, which I would have real problems with, not mainly because I’d prefer a republic, but because as a Quaker and from my heart I reject the whole concept of allegiance, of automatic loyalty and subservience to any human power, as opposed to agreeing to observe the laws and accept punishment if conscience brought me to break them, and to be an active citizen, voting, belonging to voluntary organisations and so on

 

For myself, I struggle a bit with the concept “British” unless it’s purely a description of a political unit. I’m 3/4 English and 1/4 Welsh. I don’t feel alien in Ireland, though technically I am: I’m as aware of being English in Scotland as I  am in Ireland, and I recognise a cultural, historical and scenic alliance or bundle of all the nations and places of the North-east Atlantic islands.

 

So – a long discussion for a short poem!

 

NASTY WOMEN

 

The Nasty Women’s Institute

Meets in the Church Hall vestibule,

Discusses who to garrotte or shoot,

Collects for violins for school,

 

Embroiders rumours, cushions too,

Poisons the constable with tea,

Arranges flowers, makes curates stew

And drops the Bishop in the sea.

 

The works of God are wondrous strange;

The Nasty women are strange as well.

They spread the mildew and the mange

And pull the bellrope on the bell.

 

In my county of origin, Hertfordshire, there’s a village called Nasty. On entering the village, you see a sign about the Women’s Institute, but it isn’t the Nasty Women’s Institute: it’s joint with the next village and takes that village’s name. The village of Ugley in Essex had a similar issue.

 

Here I imagine there is a Nasty Women’s Institute and they really are nasty, along with being the sort of traditional ladies you’d find in Agatha Chrisie’s “Miss Marple” stories. There are two punning double meanings: to make someone stew means to make them wait with a worried mind, but it could be literal; and the Bishop has a see (his area of responsibility), so maybe he’s being givewn a lift to that – or being dropped in the sea.

 

VISITOR

 

Come to me: I am strange.

My skin is like a drowned man’s, but my hair

Like some wild animal’s from the hills.

I wear a hat.

I am important: other carry

My food, my bed, my tools, the thing I watch

Speaking hard words and stroking it

Come to me: I am strange.

 

Come to me, for I threaten:

I climbed the river to this point

To turn and go right back again

I kill the birds but do not eat them

I kill the men, forget and leave them

Come to me, for I threaten.

 

Come to me, I am rich.

In bags my men have colours and shapes

You never saw, but will see more

I was asleep, you saw me wake

Come to me, I am rich and strange.

 

This imagines a European explorer in Africa from the point of view of the locals, with some hindsight. The explorer speaks as they imagine he might.

 

The thing he strokes, speaking hard words, could be the Bible – or a notebook of his travels, maybe, or a map. The locals do not understand why he travels up the river and then turns round and goes back again. They do not understand why he shoots animals not for food (he’s collecting them for science). They perceive that he does not care about human life, or at least, their lives. He will bring enormous change they cannot imagine. They have the idea described for the Australian Aborigines that all that will happen in the world is already there but hidden: so this is the time at which this asleep stranger being wakes up and shows himself.

 

Next time I think I’ll post another poem for the first time.

 

all writing on this site is copyright of Simon Banks 2012.

Explorers

EXPLORERS

“That this is my North-West discoverie:

Per fretum febrae, by these straights to die”

 

“Oh, my America, my new found land”

 

–         John Donne

I

Intricate fantastical

Palace is built

From fragile weave

Of dreamt formulae

On the mathematician’s

Flowerdecked grave

With a walk like the waft

Of a branch in the breeze

Comes a woman whose eyes

Are pools in a cave

That a diver might brave

With no light to return

In the day to farm and fashion

In the dark to watch and wonder

At the dawn to remember

Where the sea and the sky blur together

There are havens and reefs for the sailor

What land lies over

Those silent hills?

Wastelands where black bats gibber

Or cradling a silent river,

Valleys of song?

Officials make inventory

Of all the goods the travellers pack

And plans for drought or for attack

Are hammered out while song and story

Buy off the devils along the track

Trapped in the hills and hunted down

By hidden bog and avalanche

By haunting wind and wolf, survivors

Stumble beside a clattering stream

Down to the valley of their dream

Where cupping hands bring out bright gold

Trees offer fruit of no known tang

And vivid song as no bird sang

Wakens the travellers from the cold

They name the valley, import the skills

To mine the gold and lay the roads

Till someone heads for other hills.

When no dark ridge is left, the wise

Explore the forests of the mind

And stare in one another’s eyes

Now out of mist on broken lands

What new and treacherous hills will rise?

Well, this is one of those poems where my attempts to explain sound like a friend of the dead poet suggesting what his words might mean. Certainly physical exploration and conquest come into it. People may explore from wanderlust or for all sorts of reasons, but their discoveries have consequences. At the same time, the excitement of finding something totally new is intense. So where do we explore when there is no more terra incognita?

The opening, I think, sets the scene of the atmosphere before the explorers set out – but I can’t really explain the mathematician’s flowerdecked grave: it just seems right!